A deranged serial killer is on the loose and is killing patrons of gay S&M clubs. Officer Steve Burns(Al Pacino) is chosen by the chief of police to go undercover as a gay male and find this mad man. The idea of going undercover, to Burns, at first sounds simple enough. However, this new bizarre world he has become a part of slowly begins to affect his mind and his psyche as he begins to question many things about himself and what he thought that he was before. Before he was simply just playing a role, but soon his work completely takes over his life as he slowly becomes a part of the gay leather underworld.William Friedkin’s 1980 shocker, Cruising, has been called one of the most despicable and offensive films ever to be put out by a major motion picture studio and has been hailed as one of the most homophobic films ever made.
While I can certainly understand where all the hatred for this film is coming from, I still find it to be a very effective and haunting piece of filmmaking. I found the scenes involving Al Pacino at the clubs to be so full of realism and so raw that, at times, it was quite sad to watch. These scenes are where the true horror of the film comes to life. So much of what he sees disturbs him and it disturbs us as well because of how it is presented. In this way we can really understand what the Steve Burns character witnesses and why he is traumatized by it all. The multiple glimpses of public sex(oral sex, anal sex, fisting, BDSM, etc) in these leather clubs are stomach churning when juxtapose with the police world. It is in this way that we see how different the world of these places are to everyday life outside of the clubs. The whole film is quite disturbing and fascinating to watch all the same, but the explicit nature of the scenes as well as Al Pacino’s reaction to them helps ground the film in reality. The scenes in which the serial killer strikes are equally disturbing in their realism. They come off extraordinary in the blunt and heartless way they are shown. They are very Hitchcock-like. The fact that multiple frames of gay pornography are spliced into the gory violence further makes clear the idea of the knife penetrating the body and, at the same time, will probably raise a few eyebrows from many folks who are offended at such gestures toward the gay community. Indeed, the film doesn’t try to hide where it’s intentions lie.
This is definitely a film that tends to be gleefully tasteless at times. I am certainly not surprised that many folks found the film so offensive. The gay lifestyle is not depicted in a particularly positive light. Most of the gay characters in the film are either perverted, violent, rude, or insane. The sole gay character who appears to be a shining light of purity is Pacino’s neighbor in the film, Ted Bailey (Don Scardino) a rather young and sweet-natured writer who is terrified of the leather bars. Ted is the one lamb in the crowd of vicious billy goats, so to speak. Despite the Ted character and despite the raw visual style of the film, the scenes of actual police procedure come of a tad weak when juxtapose with the scenes in the leather bars. While they do have just as much an uncanny realism to them as the undercover scenes, they feel a bit lifeless, ponderous, and ugly. In addition to all this, Karen Allen, in the role of Pacino’s wife, comes off slightly overshadowed alongside the other bizarre and interesting characters in the film. Despite this, however, she does help make the climax of the film far more terrifying and shocking in all the right ways.
Regardless of the homophobia and the flaws, Cruising is a fascinating and weird little film. It’s extremely hateful and the likelihood of a viewer finding it worth watching really depends on how much they can tolerate the hatefulness of the film. Heck, critics have been doing it with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, so what the hell? I can get over it. It remains one of the darkest and most challenging mainstream films I’ve seen in a long time. I loved and appreciated the realism of the film and I loved how shocking the last hour was in particular. It is definitely a film that is effective. While I can’t say that I would be able to fully stomach a second viewing, I can safely say that it is a film that will affect you whether you love it or hate it. You will not forget this film very easily, and that was obviously Friedkin’s intention. It is a good horror film. It’s not for everyone, but if you are adventurous in what films you watch then it is really worth seeing.